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Thursday, 5 March 2009

Plundering your life

The novelist Julie Myerson is in a whole load of trouble for using her son Jake's drug troubles in her new book. She pleads that old chestnut about doing it to 'help' other parents who can't understand what happened to their ordinarily grumpy teenager and have suddenly been landed with a smacked up extra from Trainspotting.

This all happened three years ago. Jake is now 20 and brands his mother 'insane'. She claims he became violent and abusive while on cannabis, and after several warnings, she and her husband changed the locks and threw him out. But whether or not the book is a success, or whether it helps other middle-class parents, it's unlikely that her relationship with her son will ever be properly repaired. It's not just the writing about the drugs - she used some of his poetry. Teenage poetry. I'd never live that one down.

To be fair to Myerson it must have been hellish to deal with an angry stoner. She says it "hit us out of nowhere" and being a writer you deal with it, by writing.

This mining your family - well, a lot of people do it. Including me. I put a spin on the essentially mundane; blither about the various doings of The Boy, The Husband and The Girl. And all writers dig about in the cesspit of their psyche. I'm writing something now about adolescence precisely because its a time that we never forget. It shapes us like red hot metal in a furnace. Adolescence brands us. I don't think I'd want my teenage idiocies (and there were many of them) forever emblazoned in print. But I was watching telly this morning as a friend of mine, Stephanie Calman who has written a book about her difficult relationship with her mother, called How (Not) to Murder Your Mother was appearing with another mother who had set up a website to deal with the misery of her son's skunk addiction.

Stephanie pointed out that we all have our own reality, and Jake's reality may have been very different from his mother's. The other mother spoke movingly of her utter despair at her son's change of personality, and her total isolation and inability to help him. (She used pseudonyms to avoid recognition). But what struck me was that both Stephanie and the other woman were both upfront about what they were writing; it was factual. Whereas with Myerson, the story of Jake crept in to a novel she was already writing and began to take over. Fact and fiction can oh so easily blur and other people's lives become mere grist to your literary mill.

There is also the uncomfortable question of writerly arrogance. If you're a really good writer, and Julie Myerson is, it's again very easy to assume that any hurt you're inflicting is transcended by your talent. That old chestnut - the talented don't have to abide by rules and can trample in a cavalier fashion over others.

I don't know what the answer is. If The Boy suddenly developed a skunk habit, would I blog about it? And if I were offered a publishing contract to write about it, would I?


Kit Courteney said...

I had to go away and think about this before commenting.

What an interesting subject. I wish I'd thought more constructively, to be honest.

Does it not throw up the most illogical bonkers-sensicalness issues, ever??? Parenting/ caring/ telling the world.

You're dead good at writing. You earn money from it. Having got to 'know' you through your blog I must admit that if one of 'yours' had an issue (whatever it may be) and YOU wrote about it, I would be gripped.

NOT just in an: 'OMG, that's HER husband/child' way, but because I enjoy your writing.

I'm not sure I would be interested in someone whose writing I did not enjoy. No matter WHAT the 'story' was.

It's quite an uncomfortable topic, isn't it?

Jane said...

Bless you Kit. And yes it is an uncomfortable topic isn't it? Who knows - in later years The Boy may flick through this blog and be annoyed at my references to him. I think you (we) all have to be honest about why we talk about our lives and our loved ones lives. It's really about getting attention isn't it? And the thing is our families don't have much choice if we choose to place their little foibles up on the blogging stage. What seems to have irritated people about the Myerson thing is she's done that 'I'm trying to help other parents' blah. It's got nothing to do with publicising my new book. And the world has gone, 'Oh Really?'

So glad your lovely dog is better btw!

Kit Courteney said...

I think you may well do yourself a disservice there, madam. Having enjoyed your familial 'exploits' for quite some time, now, I cannot imagine that The Boy would be the least bit annoyed at anything you have said. I think that's something I have always enjoyed. You speak about your 'bunch' with bloggial honesty (whatever that may mean... *I* know what it means to me) but never in a harsh or horribly critical way.

I hope it's the same way I talk about Mr KC... fucking pain in the arse at times (let's be honest) but I'd never say anything to undermine him... BECAUSE I don't feel it would be fair.

They are good humour fodder (bless 'em), and yes, as bloggers, I think we DO want attention for whatever reason. I love it when someone comments in a v positive way about something FUNNY I have written, even if it wasn't meant to be funny!

Must say more about me than I'd like.

But our families/friends do not have the luxury of partaking (unless they are *in* on it) so I think it is OUR responsibility to do the decent thing. Perhaps not like the woman in question...?

Unless they are TOTALLY bonkers... (sorry husband, dearest) in which case I'll blog until I am blue in the face!

Eric thanks you... well, he would do if he had a brain cell... Alas, he is my 'stupid boy'...

Jane Smith said...

The more I read and hear about this book, the more undecided I become. The son now apparently told his mother he didn't mind her writing about him, and cheerfully accepted a cheque for £1,000 in return for allowing his poetry to be used, so it seems he wasn't entirely ignorant of what had been written; but I simply can't imagine (speaking as a mother of two wonderful but rather *ahem* robust boys) writing like that about my children, no matter what they grow up to do (my two are 13 and 8 right now).

For the last few months I've been slowly gathering material for a proposal for a non-fiction book about being a writer with a dyslexic son, taking in our mutual synaesthesia and his colourblindness along the way (incidentally, my son can see colours through his synaesthesia which he can't see with his colourblind eyes--how interesting is that?); now I'm wondering if I really should take this any further.

By the way, I love your blog, Jane: especially after your recent wonderful comments on mine which I just can't top. See you again soon.